John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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What Can the United States Do About Failing States?

by John Campbell
March 6, 2013

A child stands in pouring rain in the slum of Susan's Bay in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, August 22, 2012. (Simon Akam/Courtesy Reuters)


Around one billion people live in fragile or failing states. Yet no Washington administration has developed a strategy for helping such states address the causes of their fragility. Instead, most administrations respond ad hoc to the crises of the day, ranging from Tunisia and the debut of the Arab Spring, to Mali and radical Islamism in the Sahel. Too often, Washington’s focus is short term and on “international terrorism,” rather than on the root causes of state failure.

Pauline Baker and Eric Ham have done a public service by  proposing a comprehensive U.S. strategy for addressing state failure in their new report, S.O.S.: A U.S. Strategy of State-Building. They systematically designate four “core issues:” demographic pressure, economic and social inequality, broken security apparatus, and de-legitimization of the state. They propose that the United States work to build institutional capacity for good governance, but separate and apart from its military and security responses to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.

Their proposal requires that Washington identify potential host governments with the need and willingness to be partners in state-building. Furthermore, the strategy encourages the United States to greatly enhance its cooperation and coordination with the business community and multinational organizations with the aim of fostering economic opportunity. To give state building its proper due, the report urges that a state-building strategy be included in the president’s National Security Strategy; and, moreover, that the administration establish an undersecretary for state-building in the Department of State.

Baker and Ham use Nigeria as a case study to demonstrate how their “core issues” influence state failure. They note that the already existing Nigeria-U.S. Bilateral Commission could be the entry point for the joint development of a comprehensive strategy to address state-building.

Baker and Ham’s “core issues” provide a useful analytical framework. Their proposed U.S. comprehensive strategy ought to lead to some fresh thinking about what Washington can do to strengthen failing states, even if some of their recommendations (e.g., establishment of an undersecretary for state-building) are bound to be controversial.

Pauline H. Baker is president emeritus of the Washington-based, non-governmental organization(NGO) Fund for Peace. She led the Fund’s development of an annual Failed State Index that is published by Foreign Policy. Eric Ham is at Global Political Solutions, a private business development and government relations firm. Baker and Ham led the Fragile State Strategy team of the Society for Internal Development’s (SID) Washington, DC chapter. SID is an NGO that has long focused on development issues, and  is associated with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

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  • Posted by Melvin Foote

    This is an issue that far too little attention has been give to. Hopefully this report will be widely read and digested by opinion-makers and decision-makers in the Africa policy arena.

  • Posted by Ian Saunders

    Trade not aid with the US is defiantly the long term answer for the African continent but there is still a need for assistance in delivering better governance and institutional development across the board. It is the acceptance or realisation of that which is of course the biggest hurdle and one that requires some expert diplomatic “trapeze” work. African governments also need to embrace trade and support business, not stifle it with obstructive legislation.

    Many potentially productive areas in Africa are restricted in their ability to advance economically due to their instability, this turns off potential investment and can create a chain reaction that results in deepening poverty. As a wildlife and protected area manager from East Africa my philosophy is to identify relevant business initiatives in an area and use them as the catalyst for greater stabilisation. In rural wildlife relevant areas, use wildlife management to support wildlife based initiatives in an attempt to reverse the negative trend. From a security perspective denying extremist organisations, who are knocking at the door in many areas, a ready recruiting ground in historically impoverished communities. US support in the form of stabilisation assistance is required in many areas prior to any form of development implementation. I agree with much of the above statement with the exception of not embracing the challenge of anti-terrorism, it is a very real threat with jihadist groups increasing across the African continent, their influence and attempted infiltration into the poor and impoverished communities is increasing by the day.

    Assistance to African and other developing countries should I believe come in the form of an holistic country specific package that address the four pillars mentioned above but not denying the terrorist threat.
    A point that is also hugely undervalued is that those chosen to deliver such assistance and represent the US should be of the correct calibre and with enough “on the ground experience” to be able to relate to the people and challenges that they face, this is important in many non western cultures where the development of personal relationships can be viewed as of greater importance than agreements, written contracts or national policy.

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